Today is Monday, May 21, 2018

Judiciary Under Attack

by: J. Regalado E. Maambong

The judiciary has always been under attack since courts were created. Aside from the issues of corruption, ignorance, and inefficiency, I believe, the other issue concerns judicial independence and judges’ accountability. Criticism of judges, just or unjust, is not really new. It dates back to the nation’s early days. But today, the judiciary is increasingly under fire from those who question judges’ accountability. The question pointedly asks: what is the civil liability and criminal sanctions against judges for their decisions. Many people believe that judges are clothed with some kind of immunity from civil or criminal suits especially since they serve up to age 70 on good behavior. But this perceived immunity is more apparent than real. Except for members of the Supreme Court, impeachment by way of defense, is not available to lower court judges. Judges can be removed, suspended, reprimanded or censured by the Supreme Court if they violate the law or ethical standards. There is the Office of the Court Administrator in the Supreme Court who can receive complaints against them.

Other than this, there is more than meets the eye. Critics of the third branch argue more on accountability of judges to the public. The best defense for this is, of course, the decision of the judge. If it is legally defensible in accordance with the facts, there is no reason to be afraid of any issue of accountability. Nonetheless, the bench and the bar are responding thru efforts of transparency and improved self-policing. For instance, cases involving the same facts in the Court of Appeals are not supposed to be decided differently. Whichever decision is correct the Court of Appeals should first settle the matter in a uniform manner rather than await the decision of the Supreme Court. After all, even with 23 divisions, the Court of Appeals is still one court. Considering the vast volumes of our decisions, an automated conflict-checking computerized software might be considered. This suggestion is not actually falling on deaf ears. An office order of Presiding Justice Ruben T. Reyes a long while back enjoins each justice to submit all of his decisions in a given month. All such decisions from all justices are supposed to end up in a consolidated database for easy computer search. As of now, such facility is not yet available. For one thing, we have no search program of our own, like that of the Supreme Court which facilitates electronic research on laws and cases. Whether we can make use of such a program, only time and budget will tell. It goes without saying that once the program is available, our respective offices have to know how to use the program.

Aside from some kind of anger about the perceived lack of responsiveness from the lower courts, other groups believe there is rampant and pervasive judicial corruption in the legal system. News items and columns help form this belief. Few people know that the Supreme Court had always investigated judges and justices and imposed sanctions on them. Without meaning to be defensive, there are really complaints of losing litigants which are misconceived. They tend to frame the issues to appeal to popular fears and misconceptions of supposed “hoodlums in robes.” This partly explains why fourteen judges have been killed since 1991, the last two in 2007.

The opposite of accountability is, of course, unaccountability. This is just another way of saying that judges are independent from (1) political pressure, or (2) from repercussions for the results they reach in their decisions, and (3) adverse publicity. And rightly so, because judges are expected to be “independent”, and the minute they can no longer decide independently for fear of any such pressure, judges of that kind should resign for being in the wrong profession. There are other ways to earn a living, rather than live in fear.

There are a few disturbing reports that judges have violated ethical rules which threaten the foundation of the judicial system, as an unbiased, impartial arbiter. But, as already stated, there is no need to create another office as a sort of inspector general to investigate alleged judicial misconduct. Perhaps an evaluation of the system for investigating complaints against judges may be made to standardize the process, to reduce any error rate, if any. It should be stated that it is easy for a complaint to allege that a judge has engaged in conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the court. Attacks on the judiciary, especially in general terms, threaten the institution itself because it tends to reduce the power and authority of the courts and make them more susceptible to public opinion, making the correctness of the judges decision dependent on the popularity of his or her rulings. Suffice it to say, that public opinion is not always the rule of law.

The public must understand that judges are a different specie of public servant - they are not supposed to represent constituents but rather to serve the public by following the law regardless of personal preferences, political pressure, or popular will. The ideal situation is for the public to be informed of the reasons for judicial independence; the judicial selection process; and the judiciary’s relationship with the other branches of government, the public and the press. Attacks against individual judges for their decisions as a means of intimidation as well as institutional retribution against the judiciary as a whole, might inhibit judges from performing their vital function.

The Supreme Court through Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno has incorporated a new Code of Judicial conduct through the combined efforts of the Philippine Judicial Academy, the USAID, and ABA, among others. It has set forth and updated basic principles of judicial conduct. More than specific rules are stated, with commentaries. This will go a long way in setting the right direction for judiciary.

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